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Two Years in the French West Indies By Lafcadio Hearn Characters: 13228

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:02


Considering only the French peasant colonist and the West African slave as the original factors of that physical evolution visible in the modern fille-de-couleur, it would seem incredible;-for the intercrossing alone could not adequately explain all the physical results. To understand them fully, it will be necessary to bear in mind that both of the original races became modified in their lineage to a surprising degree by conditions of climate and environment.

The precise time of the first introduction of slaves into Martinique is not now possible to ascertain,-no record exists on the subject; but it is probable that the establishment of slavery was coincident with the settlement of the island. Most likely the first hundred colonists from St. Christophe, who landed, in 1635, near the bay whereon the city of St. Pierre is now situated, either brought slaves with them, or else were furnished with negroes very soon after their arrival. In the time of Père Dutertre (who visited the colonies in 1640, and printed his history of the French Antilles at Paris in 1667) slavery was already a flourishing institution,-the foundation of the whole social structure. According to the Dominican missionary, the Africans then in the colony were decidedly repulsive; he describes the women as "hideous" (hideuses). There is no good reason to charge Dutertre with prejudice in his pictures of them. No writer of the century was more keenly sensitive to natural beauty than the author of that "Voyage aux Antilles" which inspired Chateaubriand, and which still, after two hundred and fifty years, delights even those perfectly familiar with the nature of the places and things spoken of. No other writer and traveller of the period possessed to a more marked degree that sense of generous pity which makes the unfortunate appear to us in an illusive, almost ideal aspect. Nevertheless, he asserts that the negresses were, as a general rule, revoltingly ugly,-and, although he had seen many strange sides of human nature (having been a soldier before becoming a monk), was astonished to find that miscegenation had already begun. Doubtless the first black women thus favored, or afflicted, as the case might be, were of the finer types of negresses; for he notes remarkable differences among the slaves procured from different coasts and various tribes. Still, these were rather differences of ugliness than aught else: they were all repulsive;-only some were more repulsive than others. [37] Granting that the first mothers of mulattoes in the colony were the superior rather than the inferior physical types,-which would be a perfectly natural supposition,-still we find their offspring worthy in his eyes of no higher sentiment than pity. He writes in his chapter entitled "De la naissance honteuse des mulastres":

-"They have something of their Father and something of their Mother,-in the same wise that Mules partake of the qualities of the creatures that engendered them: for they are neither all white, like the French; nor all black, like the Negroes, but have a livid tint, which comes of both."...

To-day, however, the traveller would look in vain for a livid tint among the descendants of those thus described: in less than two centuries and a half the physical characteristics of the race have been totally changed. What most surprises is the rapidity of the transformation. After the time of Père Labat, Europeans never could "have mistaken little negro children for monkeys." Nature had begun to remodel the white, the black, and half-breed according to environment and climate: the descendant of the early colonists ceased to resemble his fathers; the creole negro improved upon his progenitors; [38] the mulatto began to give evidence of those qualities of physical and mental power which were afterwards to render him dangerous to the integrity of the colony itself. In a temperate climate such a change would have been so gradual as to escape observation for a long period;-in the tropics it was effected with a quickness that astounds by its revelation of the natural forces at work.

-"Under the sun of the tropics," writes Dr. Rufz, of Martinique, "the African race, as well as the European, becomes greatly modified in its reproduction. Either race gives birth to a totally new being. The Creole African came into existence as did the Creole white."

And just as the offspring of Europeans who emigrated to the tropics from different parts of France displayed characteristics so identical that it was impossible to divine the original race-source,-so likewise the Creole negro-whether brought into being by the heavy thick-set Congo, or the long slender black of Senegambia, or the suppler and more active Mandingo,-appeared so remodelled, homogeneous, and adapted in such wise to his environment that it was utterly impossible to discern in his features anything of his parentage, his original kindred, his original source.... The transformation is absolute. All that In be asserted is: "This is a white Creole; this is a black Creole";-or, "This is a European white; this is an African black";-and furthermore, after a certain number of years passed in the tropics, the enervated and discolored aspect of the European may create uncertainty, as to his origin. But with very few exceptions the primitive African, or, as he is termed here, the "Coast Black" (le noir de la Cote), can be recognized at once....

... "The Creole negro is gracefully shaped, finely proportioned: his limbs are lithe, his neck long;-his features are more delicate, his lips less thick, his nose less flattened, than those of the African;-he has the Carib's large and melancholy eye, better adapted to express the emotions.... Rarely can you discover in him the sombre fury of the African, rarely a surly and savage mien: he is brave, chatty, boastful. His skin has not the same tint as his father's,-it has become more satiny; his hair remains woolly, but it is a finer wool;... all his outlines are more rounded;-one may perceive that the cellular tissue predominates, as in cultivated plants, of which the ligneous and savage fibre has become transformed."... [39]

This new and comelier black race naturally won from its masters a more sympathetic attention than could have been vouchsafed to its progenitors; and the consequences in Martinique and elsewhere seemed to have evoked the curinus Article 9 of the Code Noir of 1665,-enacting, first, that free men who should have one or two children by slave women, as well as the slave-owners permitting the same, should be each condemned to pay two

thousand pounds of sugar; secondly, that if the violator of the ordinance should be himself the owner of the mother and father of her children, the mother and the children should be confiscated for the profit of the Hospital, and deprived for their lives of the right to enfranchisement. An exception, however, was made to the effect that if the father were unmarried at the period of his concubinage, he could escape the provisions of the penalty by marrying, "according to the rites of the Church," the female slave, who would thereby be enfranchised, and her children "rendered free and legitimate." Probably the legislators did not imagine that the first portion of the article could prove inefficacious, or that any violator of the ordinance would seek to escape the penalty by those means offered in the provision. The facts, however, proved the reverse. Miscegenation continued; and Labat notices two cases of marriage between whites and blacks,-describing the offspring of one union as "very handsome little mulattoes." These legitimate unions were certainly exceptional,-one of them was dissolved by the ridicule cast upon the father;-but illegitimate unions would seem to have become common within a very brief time after the passage of the law. At a later day they were to become customary. The Article 9 was evidently at fault; and in March, 1724, the Black Code was reinforced by a new ordinance, of which the sixth provision prohibited marriage as well as concubinage between the races.

It appears to have had no more effect than the previous law, even in Martinique, where the state of public morals was better than in Santo Domingo. The slave race had begun to exercise an influence never anticipated by legislators. Scarcely a century had elapsed since the colonization of the island; but in that time climate and civilization had transfigured the black woman. "After one or two generations," writes the historian Rufz, "the Africaine, reformed, refined, beautified in her descendants, transformed into the creole negress, commenced to exert a fascination irresistible, capable of winning anything (capable de tout obtenir)." [40] Travellers of the eighteenth century were confounded by the luxury of dress and of jewellery displayed by swarthy beauties in St. Pierre. It was a public scandal to European eyes. But the creole negress or mulattress, beginning to understand her power, sought for higher favors and privileges than silken robes and necklaces of gold beads: she sought to obtain, not merely liberty for herself, but for her parents, brothers, sisters,-even friends. What successes she achieved in this regard may be imagined from the serious statement of creole historians that if human nature had been left untrammelled to follow its better impulses, slavery would have ceased to exist a century before the actual period of emancipation! By 1738, when the white population had reached its maximum (15,000), [41] and colonial luxury had arrived at its greatest height, the question of voluntary enfranchisement was becoming very grave. So omnipotent the charm of half-breed beauty that masters were becoming the slaves of their slaves. It was not only the creole negress who had appeared to play a part in this strange drama which was the triumph of nature over interest and judgment: her daughters, far more beautiful, had grown up to aid her, and to form a special class. These women, whose tints of skin rivalled the colors of ripe fruit, and whose gracefulness-peculiar, exotic, and irresistible-made them formidable rivals to the daughters of the dominant race, were no doubt physically superior to the modern filles-de-couleur. They were results of a natural selection which could have taken place in no community otherwise constituted;-the offspring of the union between the finer types of both races. But that which only slavery could have rendered possible began to endanger the integrity of slavery itself: the institutions upon which the whole social structure rested were being steadily sapped by the influence of half-breed girls. Some new, severe, extreme policy was evidently necessary to avert the already visible peril. Special laws were passed by the Home-Government to check enfranchisement, to limit its reasons or motives; and the power of the slave woman was so well comprehended by the Métropole that an extraordinary enactment was made against it. It was decreed that whosoever should free a woman of color would have to pay to the Government three times her value as a slave!

Thus heavily weighted, emancipation advanced much more slowly than before, but it still continued to a considerable extent. The poorer creole planter or merchant might find it impossible to obey the impulse of his conscience or of his affection, but among the richer classes pecuniary considerations could scarcely affect enfranchisement. The country had grown wealthy; and although the acquisition of wealth may not evoke generosity in particular natures, the enrichment of a whole class develops pre-existing tendencies to kindness, and opens new ways for its exercise. Later in the eighteenth century, when hospitality had been cultivated as a gentleman's duty to fantastical extremes,-when liberality was the rule throughout society,-when a notary summoned to draw up a deed, or a priest invited to celebrate a marriage, might receive for fee five thousand francs in gold,-there were certainly many emancipations.... "Even though interest and public opinion in the colonies," says a historian, [42] "were adverse to enfranchisement, the private feeling of each man combated that opinion;-Nature resumed her sway in the secret places of hearts;-and as local custom permitted a sort of polygamy, the rich man naturally felt himself bound in honor to secure the freedom of his own blood.... It was not a rare thing to see legitimate wives taking care of the natural children of their husbands,-becoming their godmothers (s'en faire les marraines)."... Nature seemed to laugh all these laws to scorn, and the prejudices of race! In vain did the wisdom of legislators attempt to render the condition of the enfranchised more humble,-enacting extravagant penalties for the blow by which a mulatto might avenge the insult of a white,-prohibiting the freed from wearing the same dress as their former masters or mistresses wore;-"the belles affranchies found, in a costume whereof the negligence seemed a very inspiration of voluptuousness, means of evading that social inferiority which the law sought to impose upon them:-they began to inspire the most violent jealousies." [43]

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